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McCollum campaign is down to $800,000 and scrambling for public financing

TALLAHASSEE — Bill McCollum's campaign for governor is one major TV advertising purchase away from going broke as it heads into the last six weeks before the Aug. 24 Republican primary, according to an affidavit filed Monday by McCollum's campaign manager.

After raising $4.7 million and fending off an avalanche of advertising from rival candidate Rick Scott, McCollum's campaign to move from the state Attorney General's Office to the Governor's Mansion has just $800,000 in the bank.

That's about the cost of a week's worth of television in Florida's 10 media markets.

The campaign dropped that figure in a court filing Monday as the McCollum camp pleaded to intervene in a lawsuit brought by Scott. The suit seeks an injunction blocking Scott's rivals from getting state revenue to match his own campaign spending.

Scott has challenged the state's public financing system, which could send McCollum's campaign millions in taxpayer money if Scott breaks a $24.9 million campaign spending limit. Scott says he has already spent $21 million.

In an affidavit, McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams said the campaign was banking on getting a "large amount" of state money under the system. Expecting that influx, the campaign has been airing costly TV commercials weeks early, and its funds have dwindled to $800,000 as of Saturday, he said.

"A sudden withdrawal of such a large amount of anticipated money this late in the campaign would work to the detriment of and unfairly prejudice the Bill McCollum campaign," Williams wrote.

McCollum is in a "battle for his political life," said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett.

"McCollum will be in big trouble if he does not get this state matching money," Jewett said. "They're going to have to continue fundraising like crazy. But there's only so much money you can get in the next few weeks."

Despite Scott's lawsuit, McCollum is still slated to get more than $2 million under a separate public financing law that awards matching funds of up to $250 for each individual contribution he gets from a Florida voter.

The provision in the law that Scott is challenging lets traditional candidates tap tax dollars when they are vastly outspent by independently wealthy candidates. The 23-year-old rule is designed to limit big-spending campaigns.

Under the law, Scott must agree to limit his campaign expenditures to a figure based on the number of registered voters. It works out to $24.9 million in this election. If he exceeds that amount, the state will give McCollum $1 for every dollar Scott spends over that cap.

The public financing provision would also benefit every other gubernatorial candidate who participates in the system, including Democrat Alex Sink and independent Lawton "Bud" Chiles. Checks start flowing on July 23 and each week afterward.

Scott argues the system unfairly helps his opponents simply because he is exercising his right to free speech through advertising and other campaign activities. He points to an Arizona court that said public matching funds are a violation of the First Amendment.

After Scott filed paperwork to run for governor in mid June, he vowed not to trigger the public financing cap: "We will stay within the limit." But in his lawsuit, Scott stated he has "come to realize" he will need to spend more than the limit to get his message to voters.

McCollum is not named in the suit. It is filed against the secretary of state, who administers the matching funds. So McCollum had to ask the court for permission to intervene and plead his case, saying "millions'' are on the line at a crucial point in the election.

"This is an expensive state and he is running against a guy for whom money is no object," said strategist Steve Schale, an adviser to Sink's campaign. "It shouldn't come as any surprise that he's virtually out of money."

Schale said Sink could have $7 million banked by the end of the primary, and she hasn't spent a penny on advertising. "That's a nice place to be," he said.

GOP operative Rick Wilson, a McCollum backer, dismissed the $800,000 figure as a cash flow issue that will be supplemented with more campaign donations. "That ain't the last $800,000 Bill McCollum's going to see," he said.

Public financing of statewide campaigns has come under fire in recent years. Republican legislative leaders have put a question on the November ballot asking voters to consider overturning the law with a constitutional amendment. Former Gov. Jeb Bush derided it as "welfare for politicians."

Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman for the Department of State, said Scott's lawsuit targets only the portion of the law that provides a dollar-for-dollar match to opponents of big-spending candidates. But the suit could imperil the related public financing law that rewards candidates for each individual contribution they receive.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle could find for Scott on the narrow issue but decide to throw out the entire law if he cannot separate the two provisions, Davis said. Such a move would affect all statewide candidates, including those in down-ballot Cabinet races, who accept matching funds.

A hearing on the case is set for Wednesday.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

McCollum campaign is down to $800,000 and scrambling for public financing 07/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 11:01am]

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